Flood fears dwindle in Fargo as Red River hits crest, starts to recede without major damage

By James Macpherson, AP
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Flood fears recede in Fargo as river hits crest

FARGO, N.D. — The good news was all about things that didn’t happen: No floodwaters pushing aside hastily built sandbag walls, no neighborhoods evacuated, no panicked residents wondering if they’d ever see their homes again.

The Red River crested in Fargo on Sunday without doing major damage, and city officials all but declared victory.

A year after record flooding forced thousands in the area to evacuate and damaged about 100 homes, officials and residents used a host of lessons learned to prepare for this year’s less intense — but still potentially destructive — rush of water.

Thousands of volunteers, including young children, stacked more than 1 million sandbags and crews built miles of clay levees to keep the waters away. Officials gave residents tips on building better sandbag dikes, including clearing the ground of snow and ice that could be melted by floodwaters. And the city held exercises to map out the best routes for trucking sandbags to neighborhoods.

The Red River crested Sunday afternoon at just under 37 feet — 19 feet above flood stage — and was on its way down as evening approached. Only some baseball fields, a golf course and backyards were submerged in Fargo. Some homes in more rural areas were surrounded by water.

Residents of Fargo and its neighbor across the river, Moorhead, Minn., felt both better prepared and luckier than they did last year, when the river crested nearly 4 feet higher.

“The sense is we’ve made it. We’re thankful and let’s have a party,” said Bob Ona, senior pastor at Fargo’s First Assembly of God church in Fargo, where volunteers gathered over the past week before heading out to the city’s so-called Sandbag Central.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said he would pop the champagne later this week to celebrate his city’s success in fighting the flood. On Saturday he helped pass out cigars to other city officials.

Walaker noted that while most floods have at least “one day of chaos” that didn’t happen this year.

“The big thing is relief,” he said. But he added, “We need at least another week here before we get it to the level we wanted it to be. There’s still a lot of water down south.”

The forecast over the next few days was favorable to speeding up the north-flowing river’s fall: freezing temperatures overnight and only a small chance of rain.

“We’re bobbling downward,” National Weather Service spokesman Greg Gust said.

That was good news to residents here, who worried that the Red could stay at its crest for several days, straining temporary levees and sandbag dikes.

Fargo residents already have begun cleaning up the debris in low-lying neighborhoods, and highway crews were out measuring clay levees in preparation for removing the temporary barriers over the next week.

Elsewhere, residents went about their daily Sunday routines — walking their dogs, reading newspapers, going to church — without much worry over the Red.

At a coffee shop in Moorhead less than a block from the river, Fargo resident Terry Ziegelmann leisurely read the paper while eating a bagel.

“I don’t see the nervousness in people you would normally see when you talk flood,” said Ziegelmann, who has lived in the area since 1972. “We were prepared this year.”

The weather also helped. Though the river initially rose faster than expected because of unseasonably warm weather, below-freezing temperatures over the past several days slowed the melting of snow and skies were free of major rain storms.

Flooding this year has been limited mostly to areas just along the Red River in Fargo and Moorhead, where 3-foot-high piles of sandbags have prevented water from reaching homes. In rural areas outside Fargo, more widespread flooding from Red River tributaries submerged several fields and washed out a few roads.

One small northwestern Minnesota town, Oslo, was cut off from the outside world as the swollen Red swamped highways leading into it, leaving it like a virtual island encircled by dikes.

The National Guard helped mend a private levee that breached around nearby Harwood early Sunday before lending its muscle to a sandbagging effort southwest of Fargo in tiny Kindred along the rising Sheyenne River, which feeds into the Red, Cass County sheriff’s Capt. Bruce Jorgensen said. But there were no serious problems or emergencies.

Back in Fargo, Pastor Ona invited several families whose homes were damaged in last year’s floods to pray during Sunday services.

“We want to publicly give thanks to God — he has helped us, we have been spared,” Ona said. “Amen! Hallelujah!”

Church member Albert Frisinger, 54, said last year’s flooding submerged his basement and parts of the first floor of his home. Frisinger had been recovering from gallbladder surgery at local hospital at the time and was evacuated because of the floods.

This year, Frisinger was able to watch the sunset on the eve of the river’s crest from his new home near the Sheyenne River. Water crept to within about 30 feet of his home but wasn’t a threat.

“A year ago I was crying,” Frisinger said. “Today I’m happy.”


Associated Press Writers John Flesher, Jim Suhr and Carrie Antlfinger contributed to this report.

(This version corrects that only one Minnesota town is surrounded by water.)

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